Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is releasing a report on the fossil fuel industry’s deceptive tactics over the past decade in Colorado. Titled Colorado Targeted by Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Playbook: Climate Deception Harms Communities’ Health and Safety, the report shows that oil and gas companies and their trade groups have funneled massive amounts of money into the state to sideline science-based decisions and buy political influence, all in the name of protecting corporate profits over public health and safety.
Deadly climate impacts brought to you by disinformation
This summer, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment issued alerts for unhealthy ozone pollution levels for 65 days during the region’s “ozone season,” the 93 days from May 31 to August 31. (Read more about new research on the ozone climate penalty by my UCS colleagues and their collaborators in this blog). Other days, Coloradans were warned to stay inside because of poor air quality from the wildfires that ravaged tens of thousands of acres, and from smoke that blew in from other wildfires further west. While Coloradans were forced indoors to protect their health, the state’s oil and gas industry ran ads claiming that fossil fuels “fuel our outdoor fun.” It’d be funny if it weren’t life-threatening.
Throughout all this, I was wading knee-deep through stories of fossil fuel disinformation and deception in Colorado, working with my colleagues to compile the report released today on how the state’s fossil fuel companies and their trade groups buy clout and political influence to keep raking in profits. How could the industry responsible for climate change—driving worse ozone pollution, greater drought, and more extreme wildfires—manage to keep a stranglehold on a state so acutely feeling the impacts? I knew that the web of oil and gas influence ran deep. But even for a climate campaigner, it was striking to find the details on how the industry has spent the last decade getting away with pulling political strings and pushing products that are driving deadly global warming and air pollution.
In diving into the depths of the industry’s tactics in Colorado, I saw countless shining examples of how they get it done. Sure, it’s true that fossil fuel companies are accused of doing illegal things all the time—failing to honor Indigenous treaties, committing investor fraud—but some of the most insidious things they do aren’t technically illegal. (Perhaps they should be, but more organizing will be needed to outlaw the unethical corporate manipulation of policymaking.) They’re just deeply deceptive, wildly immoral, and, you know, pose an existential threat to life on Earth.
We identified four main “plays” that Colorado’s oil and gas industry deploys to keep raking in profits while communities suffer. You can find more information on each of them in some nice bedtime reading we put together for you, but let’s take a look at how they have gotten away with it—and what Coloradans are doing to ensure that science prevails in state and local policymaking.
The Fix: Manipulating public officials and policy
We can debate about Big Oil’s appropriate place in policymaking. Should an industry that has proven to be so destructive and untrustworthy still get a seat at the proverbial climate table? But in the meantime, fossil fuel companies in Colorado aren’t just pulling up a chair. They’re renting the whole conference center and shutting the door on community participation and democratic decisionmaking.
When a grassroots-driven campaign arose in the state to strengthen health and safety measures around fracking operations, community groups raised more than $700,000 in support of the ballot measure, nearly all from grassroots donations. The measure would have required that the state impose a science-based setback of 2,500 feet between fracking sites and homes, schools, and businesses to reduce exposure to dangerous pollutants.
Oil and gas companies, under the guise of the cleverly named, industry-funded Protect Colorado, raised nearly $17 million in opposition. Nearly 100 percent of the opposition’s funding came from corporate groups.
Money speaks, and the fossil fuel industry is holding a megaphone.
The Diversion: Manufacturing scientific uncertainty
With a majority of the public expressing distrust of fossil fuel companies, the industry knows it’s no longer seen as a reliable source of information. So what’s a corporation to do?
Enter astroturf groups: industry-created and -backed groups—such as that Protect Colorado group—that pop up when fossil fuel companies want to hawk their climate disinformation. In Colorado, astroturf groups abound. Connected to Protect Colorado there’s a whole family tree of innocuous-sounding front groups that shows up on screens and billboards across the state to spread fossil fuel propaganda. You might scoff at an ad from ExxonMobil touting the way it “supports our environment,” or one from Chevron claiming that “natural gas … [is] driving down CO2 emissions.” But what about the same message from Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development?
A fracker by any other name … is still destroying our planet.
The Screen: Buying credibility through alliances
Astute Coloradans might see behind the curtain of the more prolific astroturf groups. That’s why fossil fuel companies don’t just create new names, they also buy credibility by hiding behind trusted messengers.
The fossil fuel industry-backed Common Sense Institute (CSI) is an expert here. With public support for those science-based setbacks growing, CSI partnered with the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, paying the school to run models and produce reports on the impact of proposed regulations on the industry. With the well-regarded Leeds School name as cover, CSI pushed the findings—which were rather favorable to oil and gas policy positions (what a shock)—out to the public to influence voters on protective measures.
When a report is bought and paid for by corporate giants, it’s Rule No. 1 to question the results. But when those financial ties aren’t properly disclosed, as they weren’t with CSI, industry gains another way to sling disinformation to an unknowing public.
The Fake: Promoting questionable analyses
Living in the post-truth world of 2021, it’s easy to lose sight of reality. Luckily, numbers don’t lie, and the fossil fuel industry’s numbers just don’t add up in Colorado.
The industry has bought significant clout in Colorado by positioning itself as the backbone of the state’s economy. Fossil fuel front groups boast that the industry supports “hundreds of thousands of jobs” and “generates $31 billion in economic activity.” But those figures rely on a study paid for by the industry itself (remember Rule No. 1?), and they vastly overstate its importance and reliability. By digging into the numbers ourselves, we found that oil and gas extraction accounts for less than 1 percent of jobs in Colorado. As for supporting $31 billion in economic activity? It’s hard to say just how generously the industry defined “support,” but data from the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis show that oil and gas extraction produces a small and highly unreliable share of Colorado’s gross domestic product, given that the unstable nature of fossil fuel prices cause erratic revenue dips and rises. I’m no doctor, but that doesn’t look like a terribly stable backbone.
Communities are holding industry accountable
Colorado grassroots groups have long been fighting to protect public health and safety over fossil fuel profits, and in many cases they’re gaining ground. Boulder and San Miguel counties have also joined the movement for climate liability, having brought a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor for the companies’ history of climate disinformation and resulting damages in the state. Those fights will likely be bolstered by findings of modern and historic deception at the US House Oversight Committee’s upcoming hearing on Big Oil’s climate disinformation campaign, marking the first time major fossil fuel executives will be forced to testify under oath before Congress.
It’s an uphill climb (but hey, Coloradans are used to that, right?), with the fossil fuel industry using its deep pockets to buy friends and favorable treatment. Continuing to use its well-documented disinformation playbook, the industry is sure to keep up its dangerous antics as long as it’s allowed to do so. But with science and a sharp eye for corporate deception, Colorado is fighting back.